#whitefeather diaries

Glossary

Absolutists

Broadly speaking, this refers to opponents of the war who refused to compromise at all with the armed forces or the state. More specifically, it describes conscientious objectors who were not prepared to take up offers of “work of national importance” as an alternative to joining the armed forces.

There were several reasons for this stance. They included the belief that alternative work was designed to indirectly help the prosecution of the war; that it involved “making a bargain with militarism”; that it would take work from other workers or push down their wages; and that the government had no right to direct people's work.

Absolutists are contrasted with alternativists. However, the difference was probably on a spectrum rather than a case of two distinct groups. Many conscientious objectors changed their position, in one direction or the other, during the war.

Alternative service

Work carried out as an alternative to joining the armed forces. In late 1916, the government was struggling with large numbers of conscientious objectors (COs), and introduced a scheme – known as the Home Office Scheme – to allow COs to undertake alternative “work of national importance” at work centres.

Much of the work turned out not to be of national importance, and in some cases COs were subject to harsh treatment. Some voluntarily returned to prison in protest.  

Alternativists

Conscientious objectors who were willing to carry out “work of national importance” as an alternative to joining the armed forces. Alternativists differed over what sort of work they would accept. This was usually about whether they considered it to be related to the prosecution of the war.

Many COs were offered alternative service from late 1916. Some alternativists believed they had a duty to help their country, or humanity generally. Others believed they should obey the law as long as it did not involve taking up arms or assisting the prosecution of the war. Some accepted the scheme reluctantly as they were struggling with severe conditions in prison.

Alternativists are contrasted with absolutists. However, the difference was probably on a spectrum rather than a case of two distinct groups. Many conscientious objectors changed their position, in one direction or the other, during the war.

Britain Yearly Meeting (BYM)

Britain Yearly Meeting (BYM) is the formal organisation of Quakers in England, Scotland and Wales. At the time of World War I, it was known as London Yearly Meeting. The term also refers to the annual conference of British Quakers – such as the Yearly Meeting of 1915, which confirmed Quakers' commitment to oppose the war.

Conscientious objectors (COs)

Broadly speaking, conscientious objectors (COs) are people whose conscience does not allow them to take part in war or preparations for war. More specifically, the term refers to those who refuse to accept conscription into the armed forces.

In World War I, people who claimed a conscientious objection could appear before a tribunal to argue their case. Although the tribunals were technically allowed to give them absolute exemption, almost none received this. Many were told they would be allowed to join the Non-Combatant Corps instead of another part of the army. Later, others were offered alternative service. COs differed in whether they accepted these options.

There are usually thought to have been about 16,500 COs in World War I. However, there have recently been suggestions that the number has been underestimated, with the highest estimates suggesting as many as 23,000. About 6,000 COs spent at least some time in prison, while many others experienced prison-like conditions in work centres.

Conscription

A system by which the government forces people to join the armed forces without their consent. Conscription was not in place in the UK at the start of World War I, although there was political conflict throughout 1915 over whether it should be introduced. It was introduced in England, Scotland and Wales from 2 March 1916 by the Military Service Act.

Initially, conscription applied to unmarried men aged 18-40. It was later extended to married men and later still the upper age limit was raised. The law allowed tribunals to grant exemptions on grounds of health, work, responsibility for dependants or conscientious objection. Tribunals differed in how they interpreted this, with many taking a harsh stance.

Defence of the Realm Act (DORA)

The Defence of the Realm Act (known as DORA) was passed by Parliament in the week that Britain entered the war, and extended periodically over the next four years.

It regulated life in Britain in ways that were supposed to aid the prosecution of the war, most notably by restricting the freedom to criticise the war. Quakers appear to have formed a large percentage of the men and women who were imprisoned under the act for such offences as producing illegal publications.

Derby Scheme

A scheme introduced in July 1915 to allow men to say they would be willing to fight in the war when they were needed. It came about due to controversy over whether conscription should be introduced. People who supported the war but opposed conscription hoped that the Derby Scheme would make conscription unnecessary. It did not produce as many volunteers as they had hoped and conscription was introduced eight months later.

Fellowship of Reconciliation

An international Christian pacifist group, formed by German and British Christians at the beginning of the war. It actively campaigned against the war in both Britain and Germany. The Fellowship still exists today, with branches around the world.

Friends

People who belong to the Religious Society of Friends, a more formal term for Quakers.

Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU)

The Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) was set up by a group of young British Quaker men at the beginning of World War I. The unit provided ambulance work at the front.

Quakers disagreed over the FAU. Some saw it as a way of relieving suffering without taking up arms, while others argued that its existence freed up other people to fight. It was never formally a part of official Quaker structures (unlike the Friends War Victims Relief Committee).

Friends War Victims Relief Committee (FWVRC)

An organisation established by British Quakers shortly after the beginning of World War I to provide medical and nursing support to refugees, initially in France. Unlike the Friends Ambulance Unit, it was an official part of Quaker structures, although there were some tensions between those working on the ground in France and the Quaker headquarters in London. The FWVRC worked with civilians rather than soldiers and committed itself to work that it believed would not help the prosecution of the war.

Home Office Scheme

A scheme introduced in late 1916 to allow conscientious objectors to carry out “work of national importance” as an alternative to joining the armed forces. The scheme introduced work centres, which involved semi-prison conditions, in which the work took place.

Much of the work turned out not to be of national importance and in some cases COs were subject to harsh treatment. Some voluntarily returned to prison in protest.  

London Yearly Meeting

At the time of World War I, this was the name given to the formal organisation of Quakers in England, Scotland and Wales. It is now known as Britain Yearly Meeting (BYM).

Meeting for Sufferings

The national committee of British Quakers. The name of the committee derives from the seventeenth century, when it was set up to support Quakers who were being persecuted for their faith.

In World War I, a message of support from Canadian Quakers to British Quakers said that they had thought the term to be out-of-date, but with Quakers again going to prison for resisting war, it had become relevant again.

No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF)

The No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF) was set up in 1915 to campaign against proposals for the introduction of conscription. In effect, it also campaigned against the war.

The NCF and its leaders faced repeated police raids and prosecutions under the Defence of the Realm Act, which restricted civil liberties in wartime. The NCF's newspaper, The Tribunal, had around 100,000 readers at its high point.

Non-Combatant Corps (NCC)

The Non-Combatant Corps (NCC) was a unit of the army that did not engage in fighting. It was set up in 1916 to allow conscientious objectors (COs) to “serve their country” without fighting.

Tribunals that judged COs often went some way towards recognising the validity of their objection by ordering them to join the NCC. While some were happy to do this, many others refused. They believed that assisting others to fight was morally equivalent to fighting. Some also objected to obeying military orders and to swearing allegiance to the king.

Pacifism/ Pacifist

Pacifism involves a rejection of war and preparations for war and an active commitment to nonviolent alternatives. Pacifists often emphasise that they are rejecting passivity as well as violence. Many use the term “nonviolence” or “active nonviolence”. Pacifism does not mean avoiding conflict; indeed a pacifist stance often leads to conflict with the state or dominant opinions. Instead, it involves engaging in conflict nonviolently. Pacifists often seek to challenge the causes of war as well as war itself. Many are involved in campaigns for related causes such as economic justice and human rights.

Not all opponents of World War I were pacifists in the sense in which the word is used today. A few thought that war could occasionally be the best option, but did not believe World War I fell into this category. Others believed that violence could be justified in a revolution. Many rejected violence in all circumstances. However, at the time, the word “pacifist” tended to be used to describe anyone who opposed the war.

Quakers

The more informal name for the Religious Society of Friends or its members. Quakerism began in the north west of England in the 1650s, shortly after the Civil War. It drew on several trends in radical, inclusive forms of Christianity that were then becoming more widespread.

The essence of Quakerism is the conviction that anyone can experience God directly in the heart, whatever their background, education or beliefs. Quakers therefore try to treat everyone as equals and to live out a commitment to peace. Pacifism has always been central to Quakerism, although a minority of Quakers have at times considered that violence was justified in exceptional circumstances.

For most of its history, Quakerism has been seen as a Christian movement, albeit one with a distinctive theology. At the time of World War I, virtually all Quakers considered themselves to be Christians. The majority of Quakers in the world still see themselves as Christians, but some now feel that the term does not describe them.

Red Cross emblem

The Friends Ambulance Unit and the Friends War Victims Relief Committee displayed the red cross emblem during World War I. The red cross emblem is an internationally agreed symbol of neutrality and protection, the primary users of which are the medical services of the armed forces. Use of the emblem is restricted by both international and national laws. For further information about the emblem please contact the British Red Cross.

Religious Society of Friends

The formal name for Quakers, who are often referred to as “Friends”. Quakers tend to write “Friends” in this sense with a capital F to distinguish it from the more general meaning of the word.

Quakerism began in the north-west of England in the 1650s, shortly after the Civil War. It drew on several trends in radical, inclusive forms of Christianity that were then becoming more widespread.

The essence of Quakerism is the conviction that anyone can experience God directly in the heart, whatever their background, education or beliefs. Quakers therefore try to treat everyone as equals and to live out a commitment to peace. Pacifism has always been central to Quakerism, although a minority of Quakers have at times considered that violence was justified in exceptional circumstances.

For most of its history, Quakerism has been seen as a Christian movement, albeit one with a distinctive theology. At the time of World War I, virtually all Quakers considered themselves to be Christians. The majority of Quakers in the world still see themselves as Christians, but some now feel that the term does not describe them.

Society of Friends

See Religious Society of Friends.

Work centres

Centres set up under the Home Office Scheme in late 1916 to allow conscientious objectors to carry out “work of national importance” as an alternative to joining the armed forces. The work centres were in some ways similar to what we might now call open prisons, but they involved hard physical labour.

Much of the work turned out not to be of national importance, and in some cases, COs were subject to harsh treatment. Some voluntarily returned to prison in protest.